Get Smart about old-time music

by Cyle Talley

It ain’t bluegrass, youngster. But it ain’t not bluegrass, either. It’s what Bill Monroe’s uncle would’ve played. Let Fort Lewis art professor and Six Dollar String Band fiddler Tony Holmquist learn ya straight and proper.

How did you get into old-time?

I was playing bluegrass-style banjo in a few bands when I lived in Austin, and I came across a guy playing banjo in this strange down-picking, rhythmic style I’d never heard before, so I asked him if he’d teach me a few things. He taught me the Round Peak-style of clawhammer banjo playing, and ended up being really influential. I picked up the fiddle when I moved to Fort Collins a few years later, and got even deeper into listening to old field recordings and learning tunes.

So what are the differences between bluegrass and old-time?

Well, the instrumentation is similar, so I’m never surprised when people see a fiddle and a banjo and say, “Oh, bluegrass!” There are some distinct differences, mostly in sound and feel. In old-time, the banjo is played in a style called clawhammer, which is more African-influenced, sort of a “clucky” sound. The fiddle playing has a lot of droned notes, and is very rhythmic and syncopated for dancing. But old-time as a style also encompasses solo singing, some a capella stuff, some ballads, too. Bluegrass banjo is a more driving sound, originated by Earl Scruggs – that three-finger style.

What should I expect to see and hear if I were to go to an old-time festival?

A lot of people sitting around in circles and jamming on tunes. It’s really communal. I was at a festival last year and met a banjo player from North Carolina who played in an eastern Kentucky style that I’d never heard before, so I recorded him and picked his brain to learn what he was doing. It’s a lot of trading tunes and trading knowledge. And some drinking, too.

What are you most passionate about in regards to old-time?

I love the history of the music, the sound of it. I wake up thinking about what tune I want to work on. Being able to play a melody-based style of music is great because it makes me focus more. I naturally improvise things, so it gets me out of my comfort zone to play a repeating melodic phrase a specific way.

Who’s your favorite character in the history of old-time?

Tommy Jarrell. He grew up in the heyday of old-time, playing square dances, and his dad was a well-known and respected fiddler, but Tommy quit music when he got married and then, after his wife died, he picked it up again. There’re all these great stories about how he’d open up his house to anyone who wanted to come by and play tunes, sometimes for days on end. He just plays with great, raw energy. Technically, he’s not the best fiddle player. He’s scratchy, he misses notes, but his rhythm is so syncopated and, for me, when the energy is right, the music is right – and his is.

Cyle TalleyCyle Talley would also recommend that you check out Uncle Dave Macon and the Coon Creek Girls.


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